Forum reveals much about candidates for county commissioner
Four of the five upstarts seeking to replace Mary Starrett and Stan Primozich on the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners made their case at a candidate's forum May 2 at the Chehalem Cultural Center.
The forum, sponsored by the union representing county workers, the Yamhill County Employees Association, was missing incumbents Starrett and Primozich, as well as an aspirant to Primozich's spot, Jason Yates.
On hand were Position 3 challengers David Wall and Chelsea Williams and Position 1 hopefuls Casey Kulla and Josh Rojas.
The crowd of several dozen traded enjoying a warm spring evening to attend the event in the CCC's ballroom. They went away better informed on the issues and the candidates' views on those issues.
Former county employee Michelle Mathis moderated the event, which sandwiched candidates' opening and closing statements around answering questions submitted by the audience. We list some of the questions and answers here, edited for brevity.
Name three things that distinguish you from your opponents?
Williams pointed to her collaborative style of leadership, level of understanding of conflict resolution and experience as an educator. Rojas pointed to his inside knowledge as a county employee who has worked on contracts, as well as his collaborative approach working with most of the agencies in the county. Kulla highlighted being a resident of rural Yamhill County, his knowledge of land use laws and his background as a scientist. Wall first quipped that he was the only wounded member of the panel (he suffered an accident recently that required him to arrive at the forum in a wheelchair), then touted his in-depth knowledge of county government despite arriving in Oregon just a few years ago.
Are you in favor of the Yamhelas Trail?
The controversial plan to convert a decommissioned railroad right-of-way into a walking trail and bike path made for impassioned statements by the panelists. Rojas led the pro-trail movement on the panel: "So far what I've seen of it I am in support of it. We need to bring people to see the county."
Kulla agreed, saying he's been impressed by how the county-led initiative has moved forward.
Wall, on the other hand, testified that there were too many questions left unanswered in the plan, including how the land was procured by the railroad in the first place, whether it harbored hazardous waste and the potential "hidden" stipulations in the grant the county received for the venture.
Williams praised the nearly three decades of work already dedicated to the project by area volunteers and decried how the issue had become a decisive tool in local politics. Ultimately, she said, "I am in complete support of the trail," adding it would be a good thing economically and culturally for the county.
Are you in favor of siting solar arrays on prime farm land?
The Board of Commissioners' recent decision banning solar arrays on exclusive farm use (EFU) land has had its fair share of detractors, among them members of the panel.
Kulla said despite the decision, those companies that had already submitted applications before the commissioners' decision will be allowed to go forward, meaning the county must carefully monitor those projects so as to have as little impact on the land as possible.
Wall assigned the potential proliferation of solar arrays in Oregon counties to companies from other states, primarily California, that are looking for cap and trade credits. He added: "Would I want to see solar farms in Yamhill County? Let me put it this way, I don't want to see solar farms anywhere in Oregon on private farmland."
He added, however, that aging farmers might be open to allowing the arrays on their land as a way of saving the land for future generations. Ultimately, he said, it's up to the voters to determine if they want to protect or lose the agricultural feel of the county.
Williams disagreed with the ban because the arrays would decrease local dependence on fossil fuels. She added that many voices weren't being heard during the debate and suggested the board of commissioners should have enacted a moratorium and convened a work group free of the outside lobbyists trying to push the plan through.
Rojas commented that he doesn't think the arrays were a benefit to the county and that "the suits" pushing the plan don't have the best interest of the county's residents in mind.
What is Yamhill County' most pressing issue?
Wall was abrupt in his answer: "The most pressing issue affecting Yamhill County is an uninformed electorate that doesn't pay attention to what's going on in their own county."
Williams opined that growth and how the county accommodates that phenomenon is paramount: "You can't stem the tide of growth but what we can do is plan for it."
Rojas said that residents were suffering from a lack of transparency in the county's budget process and that there was a lack of expertise in county government on proper budgeting.
"There's no long-term planning, long-term investments and there's just way too much flexibility with that budget they have and they have to answer to no one at this point," he said.
Kulla switched direction from the rest of the panel, saying climate change was the No. 1 issue facing Yamhill and the other counties in Oregon. He said it was important government officials recognize the issue and take steps to address it, look at forecasts and how the phenomenon will affect the area and take genuine steps to reduce carbon emissions.
What would surprise the voters about you?
The lighter question brought levity to an otherwise heavy panel discussion, at least for everyone except Wall.
Williams said people probably don't know that she was a professional singer for 10 years, while the youthful Rojas said people are amazed to learn that he has six children and recently became a grandfather. Kulla said his quirks include being a surfer who is left-handed, then Wall returned the discussion to a more serious note, saying his dedication to provide medical coverage to everybody surprised people.
"It's not fun when you get hurt and you have nobody to help you," he said, adding that because of its buying power the county could also provide low-cost prescriptions to its residents without causing taxes to increase.
Rojas said the cost of living in a house or apartment is skyrocketing, yet wages remain stagnant, putting families in impossible situations: "I saw one family, that $75 increase by the apartment complex she was renting, basically put her and her kids out on the street. They lost housing."
He added that many families are paying upwards of 50 percent of their income on housing and if the county can't slow the increases the people will move to locations where the living is cheaper and their wages go farther.
Kulla said he understood it was the state's responsibility for adopting rent control practices, not the county, but advocated for raising wages to a level that is fair and will allow people to remain in the county.
Wall said the county could adopt strategies to control the economies of rent, but large government project to house families are not the way. Ultimately, he added, the market and the cost of land is unfavorably affecting rental rates.
Williams said rent control is unlikely, so the county must look at other factors that are contributing to the increase in rents, such as the proliferation of vacation rentals that draw down the housing inventory and increase rental rates for nearby houses. The county, she added, should limit the number of vacation rental properties to a percentage of the overall housing inventory, require that they operate as a business and have insurance, and insure that accessory dwelling units (ADUs) be used for long-term housing only.
"We do want to have people come and use the area and spend money and go to restaurants and wineries, we don't want it to cost the people living here rising rent," she said.